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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Dr. Robin Smith

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-02-28

The actress Sandra Bullock may wish to know that somewhere in America there's an autograph bearing her name that she didn't sign.

"I'm the one who signed it - but I told those people repeatedly that I wasn't the actress," Robin Smith said yesterday. "I was at this airport, you see, and they kept insisting that I was Sandra Bullock. It's happened many times before - people mistaking me for the Hollywood star. But on this occasion they persisted. Finally, I agreed to give the autograph. But I made it clear that I was who I was - that I wasn't Sandra Bullock."

There's certainly a similarity between the two women, but it stops at looks.

Ms. Smith can always pretend to be Ms. Bullock - if she wants to, that is - but the actress might have a problem impersonating the former in real life because, well, there are three things she doesn't have that Ms. Smith does.

One is a medical degree from Yale University. The second is sturdy experience in urology. And the third is an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

"Add to that a fourth - I'm the board co-chair of the New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases," Dr. Smith said.

Add to that a fifth: she is a venture capitalist who invests in companies as far away as China.

And add to Dr. Smith's qualifications another item: She privately counsels New York's business and social elites, many of whose members she regularly meets on that circuit where people of wealth cross-fertilize with people of good intentions. (Dr. Smith belongs to both communities.)

So, all in all, there's no reason why Sandra Bullock should be the monkey on her back, no?

"Oh, I don't know," Dr. Smith said, "I sort of like her."
There you have Robin Smith in a sentence. The New York-born younger daughter of forensic engineer Gordon Smith and his philanthropist wife, Norma, is a self-avowed person of good cheer.

"I like to see the positive things in life," Dr. Smith said. "I'm a fixer - I get things done. I love life. I love people. I feel that I'm privileged - and that means I've an obligation to reach out to others who might not have the same good fortune."

She seemed all set for an extended peroration on her charitable activities - almost in the manner of Sandra Bullock's staccato delivery in some of her Hollywood comedies.

The reporter interrupted.

"Where you do find the time?" he asked, very nearly calling her "Sandra."

"Time?" Dr. Smith said. "I don't need more than a few hours of sleep most days. There's plenty of time to sleep when I die. I'm a high energy person."

She was always a high-energy person, Dr. Smith said, so much so that as a 17-year-old at Yale she found that she could squeeze in advanced psychology courses with a full-blown romance with a Norwegian man whom she later married.

Dr. Smith reached into a cavernous bag and produced a mounted photograph.

"Here," she said. "See? That's him."

The tall blonde - what else? - Nordic looked, well, fierce. He was also clutching a much shorter woman who seemed, shall we say, somewhat different than Dr. Smith.

"Sandra Bullock?" the reporter asked, with a straight face.

"No, no," Dr. Smith said.

"You in disguise?" the reporter said.

"No, no," Dr. Smith said.

Who then?

"That's Kaare's new wife," Dr. Smith said.

It was a surreal moment, and the reporter had no recourse but to violate his Atkins Diet and reach out to bonbons that had been thoughtlessly placed on the table by the restaurant's manager, Trideep Bose.

"New wife?" the reporter said.

"Well, we are all very good friends," Dr. Smith said.

Before the reporter could pop another bonbon into his mouth, Mr. Bose appeared.

"No way," he said, in a vaguely menacing tone. "It's your waistline - and my battle? No sweets for you."

Dr. Smith saw an opening there. In a quiet, authoritative manner, she proceeded to ask the reporter about his weight-loss plan. Discipline, she seemed to suggest, it took lots of discipline.

Now it was the reporter's turn to spot an opening.

"Discipline - you seem to have loads of it," he said. "Where did that come from?"

"I've always been focused," Dr. Smith said. "Also, neurology is mostly a male-dominated field, so I've had plenty of practice holding my own as a surgeon. And I'm always looking to expand my horizons."

During the course of one such look - while she was practicing neurology in Philadelphia - Dr. Smith became interested in health-care management. She decided to obtain an MBA in order to acquire a formal understanding of that discipline.

And so began a parallel career in business, one that took her to Houston and elsewhere. In Houston, Dr. Smith was president and CEO of IP2M. During her term, the company was named one of the 10 fastest growing technology companies in the region.

At the same time, Dr. Smith started writing books and columns on health-care management. In short order, she became co-chairman of the board of NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases (along with her mother), where she has raised more than $6 million; and a board member of several private-sector companies, including Phase III Medical, Inc., and China Biopharmaceuticals Holdings.

And what now?

"Ah," Dr. Smith said, with an impish smile. "If a Prince Charming comes along....."

Then, with a spring-like movement that offered a hint of her suppleness, she rose to leave. There was a board meeting to attend in Philadelphia last night, and a dinner after that to mark her parents' 45th wedding anniversary.

"I'm never late for my meetings," Dr. Smith said, with a demeanor that contained none of her earlier jocularity.

As she delivered a crisp, business-like wave to the reporter before departing, a restaurant steward nearby whispered into his ear.

"That's Sandra Bullock, right?" he said.

"Why not?" the reporter said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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